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Bush, Alexander Urge Local Business Groups To Implement America 2000

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Washington--President Bush and top Education Department officials last week urged local business leaders from around the country to take the lead in their communities in implementing the Administration's America 2000 education-reform strategy.

"You can be a catalyst for change right in your own hometown," the President told some 300 chamber-of commerce members here at a conference sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Education Department.

"The tie between this organization and the America 2000 program is a natural," Mr. Bush added.

Most of the business leaders came from communities that have already signed on, in varying degrees, to the America 2000 strategy. The President and other Administration officials sought to build momentum for the plan by encouraging a group that tends to be politically aligned with the Administration--local business owners and chamber-of-commerce officials-to take a primary role in pushing the strategy locally.

"The chamber is local, and its members understand that the world is changing and that education must change as well," Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander told the participants, who came from such cities as Wichita, Kan. Fort Wayne, Ind., Galveston, Tex., and Ypsilanti, Mich. To become an America 2000 community, a locality must adopt the six national education goals established by President Bush and the state governors, develop a community strategy to achieve the goals and a "report card"to measure the results, and plan to support one of the effort's "New American Schools."

1,000 Communities

Last fall, Administration officials made appearances in a number of cities to help initiate the America 2000 process. (See Education Week, Sept. 11, 1991.)

Since that time, more than 1,000 communities and 30 states have signed on to the strategy, Education Department officials said last week. Others have declared themselves America 2000 communities, but department officials are trying to determine whether they have actually adopted the education goals or set in motion a reform process.

Among the largest cities that have initiated the America 2000 process are Detroit, Memphis, San Antonio, and Washing%on, officials said.

A Natural Ally

The Administration clearly has an ally in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its local members.

"We could have probably had twice to three times the number of people at this conference, but we had to cut it off," said C.J. (Pete) Silas, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Phillips Petroleum Company, who is chairman of the U.S. Chamber.

"The Department of Education recognizes that the chamber network is an ideal way to get the message out about America 2000," Mr. Silas added.

About 600 local chambers are involved with America 2000 efforts, he said.

At the two-day conference, participants shared ideas on a number of concerns, such as how to get the America 2000 process started locally, how to sustain the momentum after the initial burst of enthusiasm wanes, and how to handle some of the more controversial elements of the strategy, such as school choice.

"We knew choice was going to be a 'hot button,' "said Jeannie Baliles of Richmond, Va., which has initiated a "Richmond 2000" effort.

To prevent the potentially divisive issue from stalling progress on other elements of the reform process, Richmond participants simply said that "choice is on the table, just like anything else ," Ms. Baliles said.

Some Remain Wary of Educators

Many chamber-of-commerce leaders explained that they had already established strong ties with local education officials or were participating in local reform efforts that predate America 2000.

For example, the Tulsa (Okla.) Chamber of Commerce adopted education reform as its primary goal in 1983, after the report A Nation at Risk was released, said Clyde Cole, the chamber president.

Many local chambers have nonetheless also adopted the banner of the national effort.

But it is clear that, despite their growing ties to the schools, business leaders often continue to view professional educators with distrust.

"You cannot let the public-education community run this program," Joseph R. Krier, the president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, argued during one conference session.

"Even though we have good, well intentioned people in public education, you know we are not getting the answers from them," he added.

'Become Involved in Politics'

David T. Kearns, the deputy secretary/ of education and a former chairman of the Xerox Corporation, later told the business leaders that they must shed their traditional "hostility" to direct involvement with politics.

"Become involved in the political process," he said. "It's messy, but get involved."

Char Alexander, a television-station executive from Twin Falls, Idaho, said she would leave the conference invigorated by some of the school-reform ideas she heard described.

"I have already called my chamber and said that I'm coming back with some serious stuff," said Ms. Alexander, who leads the local chamber's education committee. "They have planted the seed, and it is up to us to cultivate it."

The Education Department last week released a booklet designed to help local officials begin their communities' involvement with the Administration's initiative. "America 2000 Communities: Getting Started" is available through the department's tell-free number, 1 (800) USA-LEARN.

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